Blog Post

05. Plug and Play Timelines

05. Plug and Play Timelines

Last year, I served as a TA for two history courses. As a part of the review, we made timelines to see the larger arc of the periods we were studying.  While the timelines we made on the board were nice, my iphone panaroma photo of the board  was less than desirable.  The purpose of the excercise was for it to be a study tool and I shared the photos, but there were several drawbacks. First, the photos were either warped or it took several photos to get the entire board.  Second, it was difficult to add anything to the timeline as they studied. In other words, our timeline was choppy, disjointed and static. Not exactly an ideal study tool paricularly if one wanted to add events as they studied.

As I've begun working on my dissertation, the need to organize and visualize events has become even more dire.  At first I began like my I did with my course by writing out the timeline, but wow did that get messy!  Suddenly, events were all stacked on top of each other and I really wanted a way to zoom in and out on particular moments. I also wanted a way to move events between timelines. For example, I made a timeline for the Young Filmmakers Foundation and their major milestones such as their incorporation in 1968, expansion to include Super 8 Kids Club in 1972, and a name change to Film/Video Arts in 1984.  I've made a second timeline for the Community Film Workshop Council including it's founding in 1968 and other major milestones.  Now that I'm try to look at the larger picture of community filmmaking in the 1960s and 1970s, I want to take some of the most important piece of each timeline and merge them and make a new timeline. 

So with this in mind, I looked for a tool that could help me.  I turned to Timeline.js from Northwestern's knight lab.  It's plug and play set up makes it ideal both for classroom and research.  The easy how-to guide shares an easy to use google spreadsheet that provides the data structure that feeds into Timeline.js.  T


(Screen shots from

The google spreadsheet explains exactly how to input events. Once the events are in the spreadsheet, one is just a few clicks away from having a responsive timeline!  Here is an example from my dissertation:

(Young Filmmakers Foundation Timeline)


One thing I really love is that I can copy and paste events in and out  of different spreadsheets as I please and easily make several timelines.  Since it can also be a collaborative tool, it is ideal for teaching as the students can colloaborate on one excel sheet and add events. One could assign adding events over the sememster, use it for an in-class break out, or end of semester study tool. (One could also see doing something like this for literature or other fields, not just history.) They can then duplicate the spreadsheet so that they have a personal copy and adjust as they wish for their own purposes. While I haven't use it yet in the classroom, I am excited to next semester!



Thank you! I'm  definitely going to explore Timemapper!


Timeline.js is a great tool for multimedia timelines! It will take JSON data as its input, meaning that in principle you can export data from JSON-compliant applications and use it in this too. It's also worth noting that Open Knowledge Foundation built Timemapper on top of timeline.js to facilitate adding place-based display of the data.